How the 1900 Storm shaped Galveston
Galveston’s sudden destruction in the 1900 storm helped create a jewel on the Texas coast that you can explore endlessly. She feels like a Victorian coastal city preserved in amber, almost like a Pompeii. (To skip a little history lesson and get to enjoying Galveston, click here.)
On September 8, 1900, Galveston had a population of 36,000 people and was flush with financial power and prestige. When sun rose the next morning, an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 had died in the deadliest natural disaster in US history. In comparison, Pompeii lost only 2,000 of her 20,000 residents in the eruption of Vesuvius.
Galveston before and after the storm
Maybe if Galveston had aged more gradually, she wouldn’t be so unique. Before Sept 8, 1900, Galveston was the belle of the southern port cities. With a stranglehold on shipping west of New Orleans, she built an ornate business district in the Strand, palatial mansions and houses of worship that looked like stone wedding cakes.
After the storm, the area north of Broadway was torn up but a wall of debris from beach front neighborhoods mitigated the storm surge somwhat. The area south of Broadway looked like a weed eater whacked it down to the soil. Human and animal carcasses lay where the water had receded.
Galveston rebuilds and repopulates
To survive, the city raised itself 17 feet behind the seawall that now gives Galveston a distinct beachfront promenade. To rebuild her population, Galveston solicited immigrants. Eastern European and Russians Jews, Greeks, Italians and others changed Galveston’s ethnic makeup.
Two of those immigrants, barbering brothers Salvatore “Sam” and Rosario Maceo, helped Galveston reemerge in the 1920’s and 1930s as a national tourist designation with open liquor, gambling and prostitution. Clubs like the Balinese hosted big names like Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and Bob Hope. Built over the water, they were separated by long walkways from the seawall.
Galveston reboots after another blow
In 1957, the Texas Rangers put an end to gambling and prostitution. That sent the economy into a long, slow spiral downward.
Galveston seemed to take disaster and survive it or even profit from it by looking forward. Now it was time to look back. George P. Mitchell, born on the island to an immigrant Greek family, was a real estate developer and oil man who pioneered the extraction of oil shale. Around Galveston, he is loved as the man who saved the historic Strand District, beginning with his renovation of the Tremont House Hotel.
Galveston now has the second largest historic organization in the country with four national historic districts, three historic landmarks and over 1500 historic buildings (see listing here). She shows them off at events like the Galveston Mardi Gras and Dickens on the Strand.
Reviving Galveston’s seawall treasures
That renaissance spurred the resurrection of Pleasure Pier, 40 years after Hurricane Carla destroyed the original in 1961. Hotel Galvez was also redone, yet down in the basement you’ll find photos and mementos of pre and post-storm Galveston, the Maceos brothers and the history of this beautiful hotel, where the precursor to the first Miss Universe contest was held.
Hotel Galvez’s living history
Hopefully Mr. Bobby is on duty at the Galvez when you visit. He brings history to life from a personal perspective. Bobby started working at the hotel when he was 14. He remembers shakily pouring coffee to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Bobby says other wealthy men on the island might give you a job when you needed it but the Maceos gave you money to start your own business.
Convenient and captivating Galveston
Galveston is only 50 miles from Houston so we go there often for a quick change of scenery, girls weekends, festivals, a day at the beach, etc. Over the years, we’ve expanded from the swimming, surfing and fishing to the cultural and historic treasures.
Recently, we went down celebrate a birthday. We stayed at Gaido’s Seaside Inn, just next door to the famous seafood restaurant with the giant crab on the roof. Nick’s, the restaurant on-site. has a giant shrimp on the top of its roof. We took the VIP suites above the pool and partied on our private balcony with classic beach snacks.
Which Galveston will you visit?
Whether you stay at the Seawall or the Strand determines what kind of weekend you have. Seawall means surf, sand, a mid-afternoon walk for pina colada’s at Murdochs Bathhouse or crossing the street to the lobby bar at the Galvez. Watch the surfers on 53rd street while you eat a shaved ice snow cone. Fish and eat at Jimmy’s Pier or head over to Benno’s at the east end of the island or over to Shrimp and Stuff on Avenue O for big plates of seafood. Both have walkup counters which makes it easy to accommodate a group.
With kids or without?
If you have kids or friends that love to spend time outside, stay at Gaido’s Seaside Inn with it’s incredible pool, large hot tub and waterfall that open into the outdoor bar for Nick’s. There is a free breakfast and lots of restaurants and fast food places close by.
For less noise, go to the San Luis Resort or stay in Casa Del Mar in a condo. San Luis is beautiful but like any resort, you pay for everything and there is no funk here. Casa del Mar has equally great views and balconies and you can make breakfast and lunch in your kitchen, take a nap in a separate bedroom while the rest of the gang hangs out in the small living room.
Staying in the Strand District
Staying in the Strand means immersing yourself in the history of Galveston’s Victorian days. The Strand is like a saner New Orleans French Quarter. During the afternoon, sit at the sidewalk tables of Tola Mo’ Bettah market drinking cold beer and watching the world pass by. Or sit inside and be tempted by a flattering straw hat or some sandals. Listen for the cruise ships blast their horns at 4p to signal their departure while the 1877 tall-ship Elissa watches from her berth at the Texas Seaport Museum
A block or two away is Post Office street with a edgy urban vibe and trendy boutiques, restaurants and galleries. Artist, authors, musicians and assorted retirees live in this quirky neighborhood.
Live theater and music
You can catch both high and low brow entertainment just steps from each other. The Grand 1894 Opera House host musicals and concerts with national entertainers. Around the corner, The Old Quarter Acoustic Café is owned by Wrecks Bell, former bassist for Townes Van Zandt. It is tiny, crowded, with limited beer selection and lots of original live music. BTW – Van Zandt recorded 1973’s Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas in Bell’s original location in Houston.
Lodging in the Strand District
Stay in the Tremont House with its period room decorations and the soothing lobby bar or have a vodka gimlet on its rooftop. If you want to experience Galveston’s shipping past, bunk at the Harbor House right on the channel. The last time we were in Galveston, a three-masted clipper from Holland, the Stad Amsterdam had docked right in front after having sailed from Cuba.
Food in the Strand
Also by the Harborr house is the Pier 21 Theater that shows video presentations of both the 1900 storm and Jean Lafitte, the pirate king of Galveston. Both give a good sense of the history of Galveston along with a visit next door to the Elisa.
Other places to visit
The Bryan Museum – housed in the old orphanage that survived the storm, JP Bryan has one of the world’s largest collections of historical artifacts, documents, and artwork relating to Texas and the American West.
The City Cemetary: Visiting cemeteries give you a feel for the prominent and not so prominent people that built that community. Note the same or close by dates for whole families that died during the yellow fever epidemics that raged. Many of the 1900 victims were burned or buried in mass graves but some are here too
Tree Sculpture Tour: Hurricane Ike did its best to tear up Galveston’s old trees but in true Galveston spirit, sculptors got busy to make lemon out of lemonade. Get a map here and while you are at it, tour the different neighborhoods that make Galveston one of the most historically preserved cities in the country.
What are your favorite haunts in Galveston?